Published on May, 16 2015 by Olivier Travers on our data/viz blog
Many newswires, newspapers, financial sites and trade publications follow the same data series with close interest, because of the high visibility and value attached to said data. Think in particular of governmental macro indicators that tend to be scrutinized like tea leaves. It’s hard to ignore the latest output from the Census Bureau or the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, when it’s part of your mission to report about macro trends in the US economy. So everybody covers these same numbers, but in so doing most neglect an easy way to stand apart.
Case in point, the screenshot below illustrates what news look like in today’s busy environment:
Generic drug mug: shrug (Google News screenshot)
Here’s the backdrop to that screenshot. IMS Health, an industry research firm, issued a report earlier this week showing a very significant uptick in spending on prescription drugs in the US. Elevated healthcare cost inflation has been a hot issue for years, and interest in these trends has only increased with the Affordable Care Act. So this story naturally was picked up and covered by many publications (almost 150 at the time of this writing), which in itself makes it tough to cut through the clutter of similar-sounding headlines.
Unfortunately, that feeling of sameness is then compounded by the pervasive use of stock photography meant to vaguely evoke the main topic in this story. Cue pictures of people dressed in white while looking scientific, and/or drugs boxed in white while looking expensive. The whole picture being awash in white, because healthcare. For bonus points if you were afraid to be too subtle, photoshop in some piles of cash in the background. Drugs, lab techies, expensive, we get it!
Jokes aside, it’s true that Google News casts a wide net, which certainly reinforces the feeling that all these bags of info chips in the aisle must have the same flavor. Google News does look a bit like an impersonal supermarket for news, and of course your readers will find your articles in plenty of other ways that may feel more intimate and less bland. But whether it’s a mobile aggregator like Flipboard, your own newsletter, or even direct visits to your homepage, that nagging feeling of having seen it all before is hard to avoid with frequent use of stock imagery. And that leaves aside stock pics that feel so fake that they look downright ridiculous.
Think also of the other contexts in which these thumbnails will appear on top of each other – for instance your archives by category – and what subliminal message may be sent by these images displayed not only by themselves, but as a collection.
Does it look like pointed reporting or mass-market ads?
For generalist publications that bring a wide range of news to a broad audience, a case can be made that these stock pics let readers scan stories visually and read only the material they may be interested in. And yet, because visual scanning is indeed convenient and fast, there is now a proliferation of celebrity thumbnails (full clothing optional) seemingly on every news website, whether to promote their own stories, or via content networks such as Taboola or Outbrain that point to other sites, including advertisers.
Though we have strong feelings about visual linkbait, whether these content discovery exchanges “work” or feature appropriate content is besides the point of this particular discussion. What we mean to say is that your readers are bombarded with similar-looking imagery that may send an unintended message about the quality and focus of your content. Iconography choices matter, and they don’t live in the confined environment of a single article or publication. Rather, they are part of the larger media universe that we’re all exposed to on an ongoing basis.
Everyone has seen countless variations of the screenshot below, taken on the website of a major American newspaper that we will not name to avoid unfairly singling them out:
Is your editorial iconography looking somewhat like the above?
Besides looking like ads, stock images or file photos used in articles can also undermine the credibility of editorial products in another way, as Kenny Irby from the Poynter Institute points out:
“The use of stock photography without any photographic attribution of obvious credit is a very misleading practice that contributes to the public/audience mistrust of the media. What they are doing is inaccurate, and while it may be seen as the expedient thing to do for immediate visual representation, the long-term impact on credibility is much worse in my view.”
Our Solution: Providing Real Editorial Content Right from Images
To help publications instantly differentiate themselves from what their readers are bound to see everywhere else, as well as strengthen their brand in the process, we recommend adding meaningful information right from the lead image. This allows you to start your articles with distilled information that’s directly relevant to the topic at hand, rather than a visual placeholder meant to be glossed over. A chart or data table is an obvious fit for the many articles whose ledes are numbers-based.
This doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing choice. Publishers cautious to change habits abruptly may assess response with split tests, measuring not just raw clicks (where good looking people unsurprisingly tend to win, regardless of relevance), but also actual engagement from the core audience being pursued. Things that work for Buzzfeed or the Huffington Post should not set standards for publications meant to attract, and look convincing to, older audiences of professionals at work. Just because McDonalds has huge sales doesn’t mean every restaurant should be a fast food joint.
We also recognize that showing the face of a corporate or government official in a story about that person or their organization is perfectly legitimate. We’re not suggesting that all stories have to start with a chart!
A more sophisticated approach would consist of using several thumbnails and lead images, to be shown in different contexts and for different audiences. One may for example use more casual thumbnails on the homepage and on Facebook, while surfacing up a more serious chart or table in archives, newsletters, on Twitter, and on top of the article itself. This can be controlled with a well-tuned content management system set up to output the proper meta data in HTML headers to display, say, the Twitter card of your choice.
Stock imagery has clear benefits: it’s cheap, readily available, easy to use, and the audience understands what it’s meant to convey. We understand the speed and spending constraints under which newsrooms operate, and aren’t there to berate publications that have taken this path. But although some stock pictures are no doubt gorgeous and have high production values, in the end they are the lowest common denominator.
We support our customers by doing the data and viz heavy lifting so that they don’t have to worry about it, but still get the benefit across their channels. And we are set to do so in a way that scales, in line with your editorial flow and focus. So if you think your title may need a stock photo intervention and want to increase the information density you offer to your readers – in the healthcare sector or elsewhere – get in touch!
Finally, to loop back to our opening example and apply our own recommendation, how would we cover this drug pricing data? Here’s the chart my colleague JC Lupis came up with, for the sake of illustration, vs. the Google Images screenshot opening this entry:
(Graphics we create for our clients bear their logo, not ours)